At the beginning of the year, Kristen Seery had a home, a stable income and dreams of returning to school. Her dog-sitting business was bringing in enough money to cover her $1,025-a-month rent for a studio and living expenses for herself in Pawtucket.
But when the pandemic brought her steady stream of pet care requests to a halt, she began struggling with rent. After paying in full for the month of February, she paid partial rent in March, applied for unemployment, and eventually informed her landlord about her financial situation.
Seery began receiving unemployment in April. She and her landlord traded emails over the next three months, arriving at no resolution for a pandemic payment plan. Then in July, Seery, 37, found herself in court facing eviction a month after the state’s courts began re-opening.
“I’ve been feeling angry and especially angry at the failure of the justice system,” said Seery, noting that she found the judge in her case unsympathetic. “I have three dogs, I now have an eviction on my record. I lost my job because of COVID. What am I supposed to do?”
Preventing crises like Seery’s is the aim of a $7 million initiative between the state government and the United Way of Rhode Island. The Safe Harbor program started last month and is designed to head off evictions through mediation and rental assistance before court cases render tenants homeless. Funding comes from federal coronavirus relief.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers active on housing issues and some landlords say Rhode Island’s approach is worth exploring even as the state awaits additional federal aid and weighs legislation to stave off an anticipated tidal wave of evictions whenever a statewide moratorium ends. Governor Charlie Baker recently extended Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium for two months, into October.
United Way of Rhode Island CEO Cortney Nicolato said when courts went back in session in June, the state immediately saw an influx of eviction cases. Without the program, many renters would have been outmatched in the courtroom.
“In the state of Rhode Island, approximately 2 to 3 percent of tenants have legal representation, and approximately 98 percent of landlords have legal representation,” she said. “We’re really focused on ensuring equitable experiences, and in mediation, that requires the tenants and the landlords to both have legal representation.”
Since Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo announced the program on July 10, about 500 tenants and 150 landlords have applied for help. At issue is a total of about $2.2 million in back rent. It is too soon for the effort to have measurable results.
Nicolato told WGBH News that United Way of Rhode Island plans to distribute the first rounds of financial assistance this month.
The centralized pre-eviction and rent subsidy program provides a contrast to Massachusetts, where two state rental relief initiatives are separate from mediation that happens in courts after evictions have been filed.
Tenant advocates and some landlords predict a wave of evictions in Massachusetts — where the 17 percent unemployment rate tops the nation — when the temporary shield expires.
“I think the governor should be praised for extending the moratorium,” said Eloise Lawrence, deputy faculty director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. But Lawrence said that move is just giving state leaders time to find a longer-term solution.
“Scrambling around when people’s lives are at risk, makes absolutely no public policy sense, so what is really important now is that we don’t squander the time and the breathing room that we’ve created,” she said.
Doug Quattrochi, executive director of the Mass Landlords, said the advocacy organization is looking to the government to provide a middle ground between landlords and tenants.
“It’s important to recognize that housing isn’t free,” he said in an interview with WGBH News.
His group is rallying behind surety bonds to guarantee landlords money in exchange for the rental housing they provide. The bonds would be financed by a tax on single family homes and would prohibit landlords from filing evictions for nonpayment of rent.
“The renter advocacy community doesn’t want anyone to get dinged with a court record because of COVID,” he said, explaining that the surety bonds would keep tenants’ records eviction-free. “I think our members would tend to agree with that. If you haven’t done anything wrong … and someone else turned off your income stream, maybe you shouldn’t appear in the court record for that."
Quattrochi also endorsed the idea of pre-eviction mediation as an effort many Mass Landlords members would support.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts say they’re open to exploring Rhode Island’s approach, but they’re also looking to the federal government before proceeding with next steps.
Massachusetts Sen. Brendan Chrighton of Lynn, chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing, said he is keeping an open mind about how to address what comes after the evictions ban expires.
“Hopefully the federal government can come in with another aid package,” he said, pointing to the state’s potential $6 billion deficit.
State Rep. Michael Connolly of Cambridge, another lawmaker who has been vocal on housing issues, is advocating for a bill that would create a rent subsidy fund and shield tenants from eviction for a one-year recovery period after the state of emergency lifts.
“Our starting point is people can’t lose their housing,” he said of his bill. “We’re starting with the protection, and then doing our best to help make landlords and banks whole.”
Another bill, which appears to be gaining broad support in Massachusetts, takes a slightly different approach, by launching a right to counsel pilot program to provide legal representation to tenants throughout eviction proceedings.
Back in Pawtucket, Seery said she thinks having a mediator at the outset of negotiations with her landlord may have yielded a different outcome in her case.
“I think at the very least, it would’ve been a third-party, objective documenter of the truth of my side,” Seery said. “I think that that would’ve added to my case.”
Her landlord was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.